Carlo Bergonzi, Leading Italian Tenor, Dies at 90

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The Italian opera singer Carlo Bergonzi, known as the leading Verdi stylist of his generation, died in Milan on Friday. He was 90.

His death was confirmed by Bel Canto Society, an organization devoted to the history of opera singing.

Bergonzi, who turned 90 on July 14, was known for using a large and velvety voice with remarkable taste and discretion. While he was the first to admit that his physique and stage presence were less than ideal for the operatic stage – telling the New York Times in 1981, "I know I don't look like Rudolph Valentino" – he was nonetheless a widely admired performer.

After an early stint as a baritone, Bergonzi made his debut as a tenor at Milan's La Scala in 1953. He debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1956 and went on to sing there more than 300 times, opposite celebrated divas like Risë Stevens, Maria Callas and Leontyne Price. He excelled in Verdi but he also acclaimed as Nemorino (L’elisir d’amore), Rodolfo (La Boheme) and Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly).

A 1970 television concert performance in Lucca, Italy shows him at his vocal prime, singing "Donna non vidi mai" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

In a 1988 review of Verdi's Luisa Miller from the Met, Associated Press critic Mary Campbell wrote that Bergonzi sang the role of Rodolfo "just the way an operagoer wants to hear it." She continued: “Bergonzi, who is from Vidalenzo, Italy, does have a clear voice. He doesn't add romantic mannerisms or widen his notes lushly, but his tone is so beautiful that his voice sounds romantic.”

Bergonzi preserved his voice well and continued to sing into the 1990s, giving farewell recitals at Covent Garden (1992) and Carnegie Hall (1994). But the tenor had his inevitable limits. In May 2000, at age 76, he returned to Carnegie to sing the punishing role of Otello, abandoning the performance after showing evident signs of strain in the first act.

After his retirement from opera, Bergonzi continued to work as a teacher. He also ran a Verdi singing competition and managed a hotel near his home in Busseto, Italy. He is survived by his wife, Adele.

Also see tributes from Tom Huizenga at NPR Music and from Anne Midgette in the Washington Post. Below: Bergonzi sings "E lucevan le stelle" on a 1981 Canadian television broadcast (YouTube).